2015; 240 pages (but it felt much longer). Full Title: Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire. New Author? : Yes. Genre : History; Non-Fiction; Rome. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
Why should I read Ian Hughes’s book, Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire? I know all about that subject, since I’m a history lover. For instance, I know that the Empire ended in 476 AD, after a horde of barbarians crossed the Alps, swarmed down the Italian peninsula, and sacked Rome. Right now, I can’t recall who their leader was, but it was the second time that Rome was torched.
There was almost a third time, when Attila and his Huns invaded Italy, but some Pope, one of the Leos, I believe, went out and chatted with Attila, convincing him that God would smite him dead if he stepped foot into Rome.
Some guy named Edward Gibbon wrote a 4,000-page tome called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which discussed the causes of its demise. I think he concluded that there were too many illegal immigrants camped out in Roman territory, and they ganged up together into that army that sacked Rome in 476. After that, there were no more emperors. I don’t know the names of any of the Emperors after Constantine, but they were obviously all a bunch of losers. So there’s no need for me to read this book; I already know all about the subject.
Except that almost all the ‘facts’ listed above are false, and reading about those who occupied the throne in the last half of the 5th Century AD, and the challenges they faced, may give us insight into how the mightiest kingdom ever can be swept away.
What’s To Like...
As the full title: Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire implies, this book has two overarching themes: a.) the various factors that led to the downfall of the western half of the Roman Empire, and, b.) the chronicling of those men with the ill-fortune to become the emperors thereof. The book is well-researched; Ian Hughes gives the available details, which are sometimes very scant, for each of the last nine rulers. I’d never heard of any of these guys, so this was an enlightening read for me.
The book is divided into four sections:
Part 1 : Prelude (395-454 AD)
Part 2 : Ricimer (455-472 AD)
Part 3 : Dissolution (472-476 AD)
Part 4 : The End (476 AD and afterward)
I liked the book’s structure. The chapters are in chronological order, but you don’t just get a biography of the Emperor. At each year along the way, Ian Hughes tells you what was happening elsewhere – in Gaul, in Spain, in Africa, in Illyricum (where?), in the Eastern Roman Empire, and elsewhere. The situation everywhere was complex and dynamic. It sucked to be the Emperor in those days. Want proof? Consider these statistics:
Ricimer: Roman military leader for 11 years. Died of natural causes.
Euric: Ruler of the Goths for 18 years. Died of old age.
Gaiseric: Ruler of the Vandals for 49 years. Died of old age.
Petronius Maximus: Roman Emperor. Ruled 2 months. Killed, dismembered, and his body pieces tossed into the Tiber river.
Marjorian: Roman Emperor. Ruled 4+ years, then beheaded.
Anthemius: Roman Emperor. Ruled 5+ years, then beheaded.
Julius Nepos: Roman Emperor. Ruled 14 months, then murdered.
There are a bunch of maps throughout the book, which show how the borders of both the Empire and the various barbarian territories changed from one Emperor’s reign to the next. Ian Hughes's point is salient – the Western Empire was steadily shrinking. And as their territories broke away, Rome lost three vital commodities: conscripts for its legions, tax revenues to pay for its armies, and food to feed its citizens.
Those three alone were enough to doom the Empire, but there were additional factors, such as a Roman Senate that cared only about its own personal wealth and safety, an unhelpful Eastern Roman Empire, and two barbarian leaders (Gaiseric of the Vandals and Euric of the Goths) who could outwit any Roman leader at both diplomacy and warfare.
I was particularly intrigued by the Vandals conquering Africa, and its capital, Carthage, the home of this blog’s nom de plume, Hamilcar Barca. Perhaps more than any other factor, this loss doomed Rome; she depended on the grain shipments from there to feed the entire Italian peninsula. 600 years earlier, Hannibal Barca was defeated by Rome, and Carthage utterly destroyed. Now Carthage (albeit via the Vandals occupying it) is the catalyst for Rome’s ultimate destruction. Karma is a b*tch.
Kewlest New Word…
Bacaudic (adj.) : relating to groups of peasant insurgents in the latter days of the Roman Empire.
Others : Concomitant (adj.; with its kewl pronunciation); Apotheosis (n.)
In 481 Strabo launched an attack on Constantinople, and when this failed he attempted to cross the sea to Bithynia, a plan which also failed. He fell back and regrouped his forces before attacking Greece, during the course of which he was killed in a bizarre accident, falling off his horse onto a spear. (loc. 5307; yeah, like I really believe this was an accident.)
The application of ethnic labels such as ‘Goth’, ‘Vandal’, or even ‘Frank’ hides the fact that settled barbarian tribes were actually composed of many different people from a wide variety of origins, including men from other tribes, runaway slaves, Roman peasants, and even more affluent Romans who believed they stood a far better chance of improving their status serving newly-landed barbarians rather than an imperial court that was remote and seemingly not interested in affairs outside Italy. In these circumstances, with the growth of ‘barbarian identities’ incorporating even previously Roman citizens, it is obvious that the Empire was doomed. (loc. 5743)
Patricians and Emperors sells for $12.99 at Amazon, although I picked it up when it was temporarily discounted. Ian Hughes offers five other e-books, all biographies, and all about Roman notables that you’ve probably never heard of. These are in the $6.29-$14.38 range.
The Emperor Zeno died, probably of either dysentery or epilepsy – although the legend survived that he was instead buried alive and his wife refused to allow anyone to open the sarcophagus. (loc. 5371)
The quibbles are negligible. The footnotes work well, but are used mostly to list the sources Ian Hughes is citing, so I skipped them. The text is written in “English”, not “American”, so you have connexions with neighbours, meagre programmes, and might annexe a harbour.
Ian Hughes writes in a “professorial” style, not “folksy” like, say, Sarah Vowell. I was okay with that because I love reading about history, and the more ancient, the better. But if you’re not already fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire, this book's style won't pique your interest.
Finally, for me this was a slow read, despite being listed as only 240 pages long. There are a slew of historical figures to meet and greet, but except for the ones cited already, I didn’t try to keep track of who’s who, just what was occurring, where, and why.
But I pick at nits. I found Patricians and Emperors to be a fascinating book about a memorable time in history, and I didn’t mind the slowness because I was thoroughly enjoying myself learning about people and events that were mostly new to me. So if you’re a fellow history-buff, by all means, pick this book up.
9 Stars. “Professorial” does not necessarily mean “dry”. I laughed at one point, near the end, where Ian Hughes lists no less than 210 different reasons cited by other historians as to why the Roman Empire fell. Among them are: asceticism, backwardness in science, bastardization, communism, excessive freedom, female emancipation, gout, prostitution, and, last but not least, useless eaters. Incredible.